Tag Archives: Light Bulb

Casting Magic Missile into the Darkness

This morning was disorienting. I know as a historian, especially one that is working on his PhD, talking about such personal stuff is bizarre. However, I woke up disoriented. Last night, after a series of thunderstorms, the power had gone out. This is all the more unusual for my neighborhood since our power lines are underground, so even during the snow-tastro-pacalypse we didn’t lose power. Yet there I was this morning, groggily turning off my cellphone alarm (had I not had my alarm on my cellphone, I would still be asleep and, frankly, grateful), then absently flicking at the light switch to no avail. Sighing and realizing what this meant for my morning coffee consumption, I showered by iPhone light and moved on.

This is all the more appropriate with my in class lectures yesterday. In my first period AP US class, we talked briefly about Thomas Edison, yes, that Edison. The magic he produced is not just the glowing orb of the light bulb, but so much more than that. The colorful image you have of Edison holding a glowing sphere is a perfect representation of the man, but not the machine, so to speak. Technically, Edison was not the inventor of electric light even. Humphrey Davy created electric light when he developed a modern battery in 1802. Even the modern incandescent light was invented by Sir Joseph Swan in 1860, 18 years before Edison modernized the design. What made Edison different? Longevity. Edison’s lights could list 1200 hours (so he claimed), but there is still more than that.

The idea of buying bulbs from Home Depot and replacing the burnt one is a very common idea now, but that was not always the case. To put it in context, we need to think about electricity on the whole. Impressed with his designs, J. P. Morgan starts to give substantial money to Thomas Edison for electricity research. Power plants (on a small scale) were not uncommon, but the potential for electricity was just being realized. To find investors for his growing company that would become General Electric, J. P. Morgan had Edison electrify his house so he could demonstrate the magical electric lights. In his basement, Edison and co. built a power plant (coal stoked) and ran wires, so, dramatically Morgan could blow out traditional lamps, but the room would still be aglow. Drunk on power and success, Morgan and Edison agreed to electrify a block on Pearl Street, giving electricity to 59 customers.

However, for a moment, let’s think about the technological matter at hand before we get to the cultural one. A bulb is nothing, but a pretty glass sphere without electricity (duh, I know, but follow me). Outside a lab setting, Edison needs to develop a socket to standardize the bulb. He needs to build and standardize gauges of wire. He needs to develop transistors and circuit breakers. He needs to create a current that is consistent. Hundreds of hours, dozens of patents, for a city block. When the job is done, it is so standard in fact, that before wall jacks or wall sockets were standardized, people had light socket adapters for toasters and the like for the ceiling socket in their house. The cultural part of all this? Edison helps to defeat the dark. Yes there were candles, but they were dangerous, expensive and short. Night falling and day breaking were your time limits, but electric lights allowed work to go on, streets to become safer at night and the world changed.

But right now, all I want is my coffee.